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Gaming Guru

Jeff German

Grand jury indicts Watanabe

29 April 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- A county grand jury has indicted Nebraska philanthropist Terrance K. Watanabe on felony charges of theft and passing bad checks stemming from $14.7 million in gambling debts.

Chief Deputy Deputy District Attorney Bernie Zadrowski confirmed the indictment was returned Tuesday and was expected to be filed in court this afternoon.

The charges are the same as those contained in a February criminal complaint against the 52-year-old Watanabe, a prolific gambler on the Strip in recent years.

Prosecutors have alleged that Watanabe owes Caesars Palace $12 million and the Rio another $2.7 million.

Zadrowski, who runs the district attorney's bad check unit, said he chose to seek the indictment to avoid a lengthy preliminary hearing in Las Vegas Justice Court.

More than a dozen witnesses, including casino hosts, cage managers and pit clerks, have testified before the grand jury in the past two weeks, Zadrowski said.

Those witnesses would have faced cross-examination at the preliminary hearing from Watanbe's defense attorneys, David Chesnoff and Richard Schonfeld.

Instead, the case moves to the trial phase in District Court, where Watanabe will get a chance to respond to the charges.

Chesnoff and Schonfeld contend Watanabe has been an "honorable customer" at several casinos here.

His wealth comes from the the Oriental Trading Co., a wholesale novelty importer based in Nebraska that was founded by his father.

Watanabe, who ran the company from 1977 until 2000, is free on $1.5 million bail posted in February.

His gambling debt case is the largest ever brought by the bad check unit.